Every year 7,000 women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer. This section describes what cancer is, and how ovarian cancer is explained in terms of type, sub type, stage and grade.
What is cancer?
Our bodies are made up of millions of cells. Our body is constantly replacing worn out cells with new ones, either to maintain good health or when we hurt ourselves (for example, get a cut or graze).
When our body destroys an old cell, one of the remaining cells will make a copy of itself by dividing into two, replacing the old cell. This process is usually carefully controlled so that the number of new cells created is the same as the number that were destroyed.
However, sometimes a cell can’t respond to the signals that tell it to stop dividing. The cell divides uncontrollably, making more and more copies of itself, eventually forming a lump called a tumour. When these tumours grow uncontrollably and invade surrounding tissues or spread further away, this is termed cancer.
What is ovarian cancer?
The ovaries are two small organs, each about the size of an almond, located low in the tummy, just above the pubic area in women. They form part of a woman's reproductive system, storing a woman's supply of eggs. Each month an egg is released from one of the ovaries through the fallopian tubes into the womb ready for fertilisation. The ovaries are also responsible for making the female hormones oestrogen and progesterone.
Ovarian cancer is cancer arising from the cells in and around the ovary and fallopian tube. There are many different types of ovarian tumours classified by the types of cells and tissue they originate from.
Are all ovarian tumours / cysts cancerous?
Ovarian cysts are fluid filled sacs that can form in the ovaries. They are very common and can affect women of any age. They are more frequent in women of childbearing age because they are linked to ovulation. Very often a cyst develops and disappears without the woman even knowing that she had one. Cysts in pre-menopausal women are not known to increase the risk of ovarian cancer, though can produce symptoms similar to those for ovarian cancer.
The approach to managing functional cysts will depend on a number of factors. Your GP may recommend a CA125 blood test and transvaginal ultrasound (TVU). The result of these will be combined with other factors, including whether you’ve been through the menopause yet to calculate the likelihood (risk) of the cyst being malignant (cancerous).
Many cysts will disappear naturally with no intervention required. Others which are considered low risk will be monitored every three to six months by another ultrasound scan. Surgery is only considered if the cyst has the potential for being cancerous, or because it is large and could cause complications or uncomfortable symptoms.
A tumour (also known as a neoplasm) is any abnormal mass of tissue (collection of cells). Like a cyst, a tumour can form in any part of the body. A tumour can be benign (non-cancerous) or malignant (cancerous).
- Benign tumours are not cancerous. They can often be removed, and, in most cases, they do not come back. Cells in benign tumours do not spread to other parts of the body.
- Malignant tumours are cancerous and are made up of cells that grow out of control. Cells in these tumours can invade nearby tissues and spread to other parts of the body. Sometimes cells move away from the original (primary) cancer site and spread to other organs and bones through the blood stream where they can continue to grow and form another tumour at that site. This is known as metastatic or secondary cancer. Metastases keep the name of the original cancer location, so ovarian cancer that has spread to the liver is still called ovarian cancer.
To determine whether a cyst or tumour is benign or malignant, a sample of the affected tissue — or, in some cases, the entire suspicious area — is removed and studied under a microscope. This is known as a biopsy.
Find out more
- Read about the CA125 blood test
- Read about ultrasound scans
- Read about how ovarian cancer is diagnosed
- 10 Top Tips for talking to your GP
The information on this page is approved by the Information Standard scheme to ensure that it provides accurate and high-quality information.
Last reviewed: May 2016
Next review: April 2019